Dan Cohen was on the hunt for a coating that could keep ice, snow and frost off of solar panels when he discovered a technology that could cut costs and reduce the environmental footprint of a broad section of products from aircraft and drones to medical devices, pipelines and even sailboats.
It would prompt Cohen to found his own startup, Flite Material Sciences, which debuted virtually at TechCrunch Startup Battlefield.
Cohen never found the perfect coating for those panels, one of the projects he had undertaken as CTO of the solar company. The coating would change the color of the panel, need to be applied every year or contain toxic materials. The answer came from a professor at the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics, who claimed he could keep ice and rain and snow and frost off the panels and off the structures with no coating at all.
"We thought, OK, that's a little counterintuitive, but let's go see what he has," Cohen said. The professor introduced Cohen to the field of laser surface functionalization. Instead of a coating, which gives the glass, plastic or metal the ability to repel water, he used a laser to retexture the material allowing it to repel water by itself. The process also works to prevent rust, ice and repels oil on a variety of surfaces, including semiconductors and even human bone and teeth.
Cohen was impressed and inquired whether a solar panel manufacturer had already licensed the technology. It turns out, the technology wasn't licensed to any company, in any industry.
The University of Rochester agreed to license the technology and Flite Materials Science was born in 2018 to commercialize it. The startup spent the first year learning about the technology, researching the IP and understanding product-market fit. It also went through several accelerator programs, including TechStars and Centech in Montreal.
Now, Cohen is aiming to take the technology to a commercial scale and apply it to aerospace, life sciences and other industries.
How it works
The texturizing process mimics what can be found in nature. Take a lotus leaf, for instance. That leaf can sit in water all day but still seem perfectly dry, Cohen explained.
"When you look at it under a powerful enough microscope, you see that it's actually extremely rough, that there are these very sharp spikes," he said. "And so theories started to emerge about why water can't stay on these sharp spiky surfaces."
Early research that tried to create these textures focused on a combination of gases and chemicals. University of Rochester professor Chunlei Guo came up with a novel way of using lasers with a high pulse rate — like a quadrillion pulses per second — to transform the material without building up a lot of heat.
"This is putting in lots of energy, but the pulses make it possible to be more of a sculptor," Cohen said. "It moves material around or redeposits it back on without just burning it away."
That last point is critical. The technique that Flite is licensing and plans to commercialize doesn't take away or weaken the surface. It merely reshapes the texture to give the metal or plastic the ability to repel water, oil and ice.
The company is currently "scrambling" to conduct as many customer validation projects as possible," Cohen said, adding that those projects that prove how this could work on specific products and industries. Flite Material Science has completed a few projects and has more lined up.
About 16 companies have expressed a strong interest to do these tests in the next year and about 150 more are waiting for us to have the capacity to participate, Cohen said.
Flite Material Sciences has fewer than 10 employees, but Cohen hopes to hire more once the company closes a round of funding in the third or fourth quarter of this year.
The company's research led it to home in on aerospace and defense. The company is also "doing quite a bit of work" for oil and gas and semiconductors and sees demand from automotive and packaging, said Cohen, adding that those last two industries will likely have to wait until unit economics have come down.